Tradeswomen's Conference Keeps Growing, Expanding Opportunities for Women

June 2012 - There was an especially telling moment at the 2012 Women Building California and the Nation Conference in Sacramento last month.  During the plenary luncheon session, event organizer Debra Chaplan asked how many of the workers in attendance had experienced being the only woman on a job site.

 Almost every woman there raised her hand.

It was a moment that illustrated the immense value of the conference to tradeswomen in California and throughout the nation and the world.  As Tradeswomen, Inc., an organization that advocates for women in the Trades, explained about the conference:  "It is often difficult for women to work in the trades because they find they are the only woman or one of very few women out on the job site.  Being in a room with 500-plus other tradeswomen who have a similar experience, is key to helping women break the isolation they may feel at work."

Chaplan explains:  "I don't know how many women tell me each year that they've been thinking about leaving the trades.  But then they come to this conference and they are re-energized for another year."

You could see that process in action at this year's conference, our 11th annual California event, and the second year that we've been a national conference as well.

The national and international presence was clearly felt.  Mary Battle, the first female elected Business Manager of Operative Plasterers & Cement Masons Local 591, Washington D.C., shared her story of her determination to succeed.  One of just five women in her 900-member local, she earned the respect and support of her peers, and has helped opened doors for more strong female leaders.  Worker and union organizer Justina Jonas came all the way from Namibia to share her triumphs and challenges. Delegates from Canada, Curacao, and Switzerland also attended.

The first conference, held in 2002, drew about 200 tradeswomen.  At that time, it wasn't expected to become an annual event, but those first attendees felt they had gained and benefited so much that they wanted another conference the following year.  It's grown every year since to more than 500 people this year.  It must be getting good results.

Each year, the conference brings more women into the trades and offers tradeswomen, both new and experienced, opportunities for networking, skill building, leadership development and organizing.  More than 30 workshops offered insight and knowledge into a wide array of workplace issues and union processes. 

In its history, the conference has brought together 5,000 tradeswomen, and the results have been more women entering and staying in the trades, and more women in positions of union leadership.

But the fact remains that women remain severely underrepresented in the Building Trades.  The long economic recession has been a major reason, creating 40 percent unemployment in construction and wiping out opportunities for women and men alike.

Together, we must work to expand opportunities for women in the Trades the way we've expanded opportunities for good female candidates to win political office.  Today, the California Legislature's women's caucus has 34 members.  When that caucus was formed in 1985, only 15 women were in the Legislature.

And both of California's United States Senators are women who have long been strong advocates for working families:  Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein.

This being an important election year, we talked at this year's conference about what's at stake.  There are candidates holding or seeking office who don't want to expand opportunities for working women, and who, in fact, are waging all-out war on all working people and their unions.  We discussed how crucial it will be in the months ahead to fight to beat those right-wing extremists and elect candidates who would actually rather invest in working people and enhance their quality of life.

This conference brought together a formidable group of strong, united women who vowed to do exactly that between now and November.  

The number of women in the Building Trades is still far from satisfactory. But each year, our annual Women Building California and the Nation Conference tears down more barriers, opens more doors, and brings greater opportunity to deserving workers.   The tradeswomen who attend will vouch for that.


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